Jennifer Thompson is coauthor of the New York Times best-selling book, Picking Cotton.
She speaks frequently about the need for judicial reform and is a member of the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission, the advisory committee for Active Voices, and the Constitution Project. Her op-ed essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Durham-Herald Sun, and the Tallahassee Democrat.
In 1984, Thompson was a 22-year-old college student with a 4.0 GPA and lofty goals for her future. Her path was dramatically altered, however, when a man broke into her apartment, put a knife to her throat, and raped her.
In that moment, her determination took an entirely different direction, as she focused all attention on memorizing the man’s features. Searching for scars, tattoos, and any unique features that could help her identify him, she was certain that she could put him in prison for life. After a composite sketch, line-up identification, and trial, Jennifer Thompson’s testimony and memory led to a life sentence for Ronald Cotton.
Years later, Thompson was asked to provide a DNA sample for further analysis of the case. She agreed to the request, positive that her identification of Cotton would be held up by science. In an instant, both lives changed, when it was revealed that Cotton was not her rapist. After spending 11 years in prison as an innocent man, he was released.
Devastated that her actions led to the imprisonment of an innocent man, Thompson reached out to Cotton to apologize, and in an act of true generosity, he forgave her. Their unlikely friendship and bond became the basis of Picking Cotton.